28 October 2006

A Nice Time Was Had by All

Nice view: The Mediterranean, from the Promenade des Anglais.
The lovely thing about being Over Here is that when other people visit, I get an opportunity to see familiar sites through new eyes, and to explore new places. When Mark Dennis, a friend since freshman year at Brown, got some free time, he suggested we head to the south of France, and it turned out to be a terrific trip.

We made our headquarters in Nice, which I'd explored only briefly on my way to Cannes last year with Nate Goodman. Mark rented an apartment, which wound up being cheaper than two hotel rooms, and also gave us a kitchen. Mark is an accomplished chef and wanted to take advantage of local markets and specialties.

The Niçois coastline, viewed from Mont Alban

Located about ten minutes from the spectacular waterfront and the Promenade des Anglais (the Niçois boardwalk), the apartment was spacious, simply furnished, and in the kitchen, just passably — Mark had to do some improvising when it came time to cook. We found a great market, and by the third day most of the vendors knew us on sight, practically falling over themselves to ask how our previous purchases had fared and to tempt us with new items. In restaurants and wine shops, too, we got similarly royal treatment, as soon as it became clear that we really wanted to consume something other than hamburgers and Coca-Cola.

We quickly learned that the Niçois are not Parisian. For one thing, long exposure to the British, who began vacationing here as soon as Napoleon went into exile, has given many of the locals a good grasp of the English language. Moreover, the slower pace and gentler climate there seem to make people mellower, chattier, more outgoing in every way. On our first morning, I got into a long conversation with a woman waiting on the checkout line at the market — the kind of conversation I'd never have in Paris (or New York) — and throughout our stay, folks were uncommonly sociable. Mark was particularly struck by the beauty of the women, and yes, they sunbathe topless on the beach, right in the middle of town; but, alas, it seems a truth universally acknowledged that two single, middle-aged men shopping for food and wine must be gay.

The Marché aux Fleurs, in Vieux Nice

At the apartment, Mark prepared fish one night — braised daurade — and his own interpretation of coq au vin, using guinea hen instead of chicken. At other meals, we ate out, and highlights include the staggering cheese plate at a restaurant in Beaune, on the drive southward; Oliviera, in Nice, which features a different olive oil in every dish, including dessert (don't scoff — it was the best tiramisu I ever ate); and my first sea urchins, in Antibes (like something out of Star Trek, they're eaten so fresh they're still writhing). We didn't try the Niçois gnocchi, which are made with spinach and named merda di can — dog shit — but we did sample the pissaladière, fritures, bouillabaisse, and other regional delights. Mark guided us meticulously through the local wines, and he came up with a winning list — the names of which I didn't write down, though naturally Mark logged each and every one.

The weather was spectacular, and we even got in some beach time. The Mediterranean was chilly, but the water is so clear and blue that it's irresistible. Thus, we never quite made it up to Cimiez, the neighborhood that boasts important collections of Matisse and Chagall and what's supposed to be a terrific archaeological museum. "We're on vacation; we shouldn't pressure ourselves," I kept saying, while Mark said, "There's always next time." We made a day trip to Antibes, only to discover that the Picasso museum was closed: the medieval fortress in which it's housed is under renovation. So in this wonderland that's been home to so many painters, we didn't see much art.

The Villa et Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild,
at Cap Ferrat

A more ambitious jaunt took us eastward along the Riviera. We visited the spectacular villa and gardens of one of the Rothschilds, on a promontory like the prow of a ship sailing into the Mediterranean. (Béatrice Eprhussi de Rothschild, the lady who built the place, even named it after a ship: the Ile de France.) The villa itself was crammed with Italian Renaissance and Louis XVI art and furnishings, and the gardens burgeoned with all the plant life you can imagine, arranged thematically. The "exotic" garden featured mostly cacti and yucca. The house and garden at Beynes look pretty plain now: I think it is better to be a Rothschild than to visit one.

Continuing the drive, we peered over the roadway at Monaco and agreed there was no reason to go there, since Grace Kelly wasn't going to greet us, then drove across the Italian border, so that Mark could make his first visit to Italy. After my recent trips to Spain and Germany, where I found my language skills rusty at best, I was delighted to find myself speaking Italian without serious accident. At a seaside café in Ventimiglia, we toasted Guido Organschi, who taught us to drink espresso; though he's lived most of his life in Connecticut, he remains Italy's foremost cultural ambassador, and he's been a true mentor to Mark and to me.

The day trips seemed like a breeze compared with the drive to and from Beynes, so much longer than we expected — ten hours, not including breaks for lunch and espresso — and our minivan wasn't easy to navigate, especially in the parking garages. Most of these seem to have been designed for Matchbox cars. Since I still haven't learned to shift, all the burden of the wheel fell upon Mark, but he bore up heroically. However, though map-reading is not my specialty, I managed to keep us from getting lost ... much ... so I feel I did contribute something to the success of the trip.

And thus let it be said that a Nice time was had by all.

The Vieux Port is used primarily by pleasure boats
— and ferries to Corsica.